Steam and smoke rolled out from under the hood of the Theater Owners Booking Association bus. Most of the performers had filed off and were milling around the side of the road, but a few hung out of the open windows, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
“It’s ruined!” Declared Fats, as he slammed the hood back down. “We ain’t makin’ the gig.”
“Then we’ll have to walk.” Said a smaller man in a cheap suit, the only white amongst the crowd. “We’ve got an engagement to keep. We’ll deal with the bus tomorrow.”
A murmur of disquiet went through the group. They were miles from their intended stop.
“Like hell I am.” Came a voice from the back. It was Ma Rainey, a corpulent blues singer and one of the circuit’s biggest draws. “The’s a bar a ways back. We’ll play there.”
“No, no. The Barrasso’s won’t like that. We’re booked to play in Mobile tonight. A real theater, not some cliche juke joint.”
Ma Rainey loomed toward the man, seeing to grow larger the closer she got.
“We’re in Mobile. We’re playin’ tonight. That’s good enough. Don’t you agree?”
The small man swallowed and gave a meek nod.
The Theater Owners Booking Association was a Memphis based Vaudeville circuit that catered to black audiences in the South. It was founded by two Italian brothers that saw the strong attendance by blacks to their theaters in Memphis when they booked black acts. Notorious for working their acts to the bone in poor conditions, Ma Rainey was once quoted as saying that TOBA actually stood for “Tough on Black Asses”. The circuit folded during the Great Depression, but its bones became the basis of the loose Chitlin’ Circuit that helped create rock ‘n roll.